SAG Update: Radicals Sag, Moderates Lay Down With Lions

sag-logoIn a stunning development, Membership First, the radical faction of the Screen Actors’ Guild, was pushed completely out of power in the entertainment industry’s most important union last month, ending an era that reaches back to the 1980’s when leftist Ed Asner was Guild president.

The Guild holds national elections every two years, when a third of its 70 member National Board and members of its three divisional boards stand for re-election. Two years ago, a new moderate alliance built around a long standing group in New York, a new formation in Hollywood and incumbents in the midwest and other regions of the country helped elect a moderate and self-effacing president, Ken Howard, to replace the vocal and controversial leader of the radical faction, Alan Rosenberg.

Now, that same moderate group pushed almost all of the remaining radicals off the Hollywood Division board and Rosenberg himself failed to gain re-election to the National Board.  The most visible leader of MF in recent months, Anne Marie Johnson, all but declared the organization dead, stating, “Certain groups have had their time in history to do what they could possibly do, and our time has come and gone.”

The National Board is now firmly in the hands of the moderates as early bargaining has gotten underway with the studios, led by their labor umbrella and bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP.

For many in the union the development was a great relief because of the polarizing effect that Membership First’s approach to union politics had on the union’s internal culture.  As I was, before withdrawing from the process, the “leading candidate” to serve  as the union’s National Executive Director under Membership First leadership in 2006 I learned a great deal about the union and have followed it closely since.

Overall, there is no doubt that Membership First was possessed of a very narrow, even stultifying image of how a union ought to function.  After my withdrawal as NED candidate it took another six months to bring in Doug Allen, a functionary of the Football Players Union who, it turned out, had not only crossed a picket line while a young football player for the Buffalo Bills, but was the lead figure in a scam at the Players’ Union that led to a 28 million dollar judgment against the union for stealing retired player’s images in a deal with Electronic Arts for their gaming products.

Hardly an auspicious beginning as the leader of a union charged with defending its members’ images and reputations in a fiercely competitive and complex business environment.  Allen seemed to thrive on images of his life as a linebacker, as if the entertainment industry could be influenced the way it was back in the days of Sid Korshak.

Sure enough, the Producers made mincemeat of the guilds in the 2007-08 bargaining round. Although I had been told during the NED process that a central goal of the Writers’ and Actors’ guilds was to coordinate their efforts to defend the residuals system (which pays guild members for repeated usage of their products down the chain of consumption) and to crack open the 20 billion plus cash cow represented by DVD’s.  Instead the Writers Guild lost faith that SAG under Alan and Allen would be a reliable strategic partner. That made the much smaller WGA an easier target for the AMPTP. A lengthy strike by the Writers ended in only modest gains, although their ability to gain some residual coverage in new media (such as online delivery of shows and films) was important.

Conservative leaders at the Directors Guild and the smaller television based AFTRA decided to go its own way as well and quickly signed “me too” agreements based on the WGA formula. That left the MF led SAG alone and in trouble. They had no strategy other than their blunt public statements. They had done nothing to prepare the membership for a last in line position in bargaining but were unwilling to recognize the limits of the situation and compromise in order to fight another day.  Negotiations dragged on but the MF team was alienating more and more of their members.

Secretly, some moderate voices in the union began a counter-strategy that included, according to one unconfirmed report, at least one meeting between Robert Pisano, a former studio lawyer and the ousted NED of SAG who is now the head of the studios’ lobby, the MPAA. That meeting does not seem to have led to much but it apparently included Tom Hanks and George Clooney who began to lend their support to a new Hollywood based moderate group called Unite For Strength, or UFS.

A central goal of UFS is to “unite” or merge with the smaller TV actors union, AFTRA, arguing somewhat oddly that unless the two unions merge the studios can play the unions off against one another. But for more than 20 years the two unions have bargained as a team and the basic terms and conditions in their two contracts are identical. Where a problem has emerged is in new areas such as cable and now digital media where AFTRA has claimed SAG does not have exclusive bargaining rights, thus enabling AFTRA to negotiate lower rate contracts to attract employers. This is consistent with AFTRA’s historic origins as a union formed to compete against SAG with lower rates for television film actors in the 1950s. Of course, a merged union would still have the temptation to offer such deals, as SAG itself does for new media and low budget independent productions.

That UFS has focused so intensely on merger with AFTRA as the solution to the union’s problems suggests, in fact, that it is sticking its head in the sand to avoid the real issues.  Nonetheless, the mood of the members had by the fall of 2008 shifted against MF. UFS and friends in NY and the other regions of the country were able to get Ken Howard elected president as well as achieve a narrow majority on the National Board. They quickly moved to oust Doug Allen and brought in a former studio lawyer, David White, who had been recruited from the studios’ big corporate law firm, O’Melveny and Myers, to join SAG as general counsel when Robert Pisano, then a partner at O’Melveny, was hired as NED.  When Pisano was fired by Rosenberg, White eventually left as well, to set up a law firm that represented producers on labor issues.

Now in the most recent election season, the moderate alliance has solidified its hold on the union leadership and made the merger with AFTRA its immediate priority once the current round of bargaining is complete.

But a big question remains: what exactly is the strategy for the current round of bargaining?

If it exists, which I doubt, the union has been deadly silent about it. Of course, that is proof that it does not exist. The heart of any union’s strategy must be to increase leverage against the employers before formal bargaining exists. Once the battle is underway it is very hard to regain lost time. But SAG under President Howard has been almost a ghost, you think you see him and then he disappears. While moderate talking heads on various blogs promise a secret strategy is in place, the fact that SAG itself has done nothing to increase its visibility or to present the union’s arguments for improved wages, hours and working conditions to a wider audience means there is no additional leverage at the table.

Although DVD’s continue to be a cash cow for the industry, for example, the union reportedly has dropped any attempt to change the revenue sharing model for DVD’s  that even Wall Street analysts say is lopsided. Since new media has yet, and will not for quite some time, replace DVD revenue in the income statements of the studios, focus on new media will mean little for actors’ pockets.

Three years ago, the studios knocked the guilds on their heels with demands for an end to the cherished and critically important residuals system. Residuals are the lifeblood of many actors who do not have the steady work of many in the entertainment industry. Residual payments can help actors survive from project to project, thus achieving for the industry a level of labor flexibility and reliability that has made Hollywood a critical American industry for many decades.

While bargaining has been underway for a little over a week, there is no word on whether the studios are pushing for such dramatic structural change. SAG members better hope that that is not the case, because their leadership is ill prepared to deal with such a scenario.

Stay tuned!

15 thoughts on “SAG Update: Radicals Sag, Moderates Lay Down With Lions”

  1. Interesting reading,I have my own thoughts of our Staff and elected officials from my observations in the W&W and other meetings where the actors good was compromised due to an under lying agenda.. this Sunday read ,listen, and think to all the comments and what is done about them…


    “Excerpt from Mercer Memo: 1. Based on the March 2003 Mercer Report, the Management Trustees have concluded that it is not in the best interests of plan participants to consolidate the SAG-Producers Pension and Health Plans with AFTRA Health and Retirement Plans because it would result in a diminuation in benefits and an increase in administration costs.”


  3. Michele – I notice that your NLRB claims and appeals to whomever you have devised in order to halt progress in our performers’ unions continue to lie moribund and fallow.

    By the way, the Mercer Report never advised against a merger of SAG and AFTRA. You’ve obviously have never read it.

    Steve – I argue with one phrase of yours – the one that states “Robert Pisano, a former studio lawyer and the ousted NED of SAG.” Bob Pisano was NOT “ousted” from the position of NED of SAG. He left the post of his own volition, knowing that Greg Hessinger was available and willing to take the job and was – at the time – a candidate acceptable to all of the political factions.

  4. Lest Mr. Diamond be left alone swimming in this den of toothless sharks, I think I’ll jump in…

    The National Labor Relations Board is the privatised Federal Agency that DEFINES the parameters of respective Unions’ jurisdictions in the United States.

    The National Labor Relations Board does not believe that Broadcasters and Actors are the same, or even similar enough to be contained in the same Unions’ membership, or Employee Bargaining Unit. Scripted dramatic programming and its execution are vastly different things than the job of a Broadcaster. There are nearly a dozen legal decisions via the NLRB in which AFTRA was stopped from attempting to invade SAG’s legal jurisdiction. This very body that defined these parameters, reiterated its decisions for decades when AFTRA attempted to use some form of new technological delivery or means of capture as a valid reason for an official jurisdictional award. AFTRA was NEVER given a jurisdictional award over scripted television programming and pilots. THEY STOLE IT. The Board and Governance of SAG have been significantly and variously corrupted to the degree that SAG is not taking any measures whatsoever to defend its own jurisdiction–which is a breach of a Unions’ fiduciary obligation to protect its own membership, by law.

    This is why Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA have a number of official charges pending against them, via the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor. The plan for years has been to ‘weaken SAG into merger’ to create an uber producer-compliant strike-free union that will never defend the vital protections of Actors. This is unacceptable.

    Then there’s the Mercer Report–which seems to never be mentioned anymore–the report in which it was stated that it was not advisable to attempt to merge SAG and AFTRA. Good luck trying to find a copy of THAT anywhere… Alot of things are ‘disappearing’ lately, if you know what I mean…

    A proposed merger WOULD empower STAFF as opposed to the democratic nature of a Union like the Screen Actors Guild in which the members retain the Constitutional right to VOTE on major issues affecting their Union. I believe the first thing that would be done if these two labor organizations are merged, would be that the Memberships’ right to vote would be qualified, or removed entirely via the “new constitution”. The UFS talking heads are already speaking about the removal of the members’ right to vote–and the unions are not even merged.

    None of this is legal. And there IS no strategy for negotiations other than suck it up and lick butt and accept whatever dreadful terms are offered, until you can get out a merger referendum. STALL until you can get your merger.

    Well, I don’t believe that will ever happen. The Federal Government is involved in this disgusting situation now. We’ll see what happens shortly.

  5. Regarding the merger please see my earlier post on Why SAG and AFTRA should rethink merger which is linked in my Favorite Posts section.

    Regarding strategy it seems as if defenders of the realm, so to speak, are dead set on attacking a point I never made – a common enough tactic but not terribly helpful. I never said SAG should “announce” some public strategy, whatever that would mean. Rocky Marciano never “announced” a punch in advance but surely its impact was “felt.”

  6. As ‘an elected’ at AFTRA since 1991, I’m curious as to just HOW you see that an amalgamated union tends to empower staff? We at AFTRA live the amalgamated life, and I don’t see it. You’d need to provide some pretty specific examples, please.

    Broadcasters have differences, but they fundamentally work for the same people as the actors do. And let’s not forget Recording Artists, whose work become the subject of many an ‘actor contract’ negotiation.

    And regarding strategy, remember these are Early Negotiations, demanded by the AMPTP as a result of the 2008-09 negotiation with SAG. And as of about two weeks ago, we hadn’t even SEEN the proposals from management, so….announcing some public strategy seem AT LEAST premature.

  7. “Newscasters” are performers, not “journalists.” Journalists create their own material, for the most part, and are members of writers’ guilds.. AFTRA currently represents newscasters. Many broadcasters are also members of SAG. But not journalists.

  8. One correction to your article:

    Although the WGA ratified its contract first, the DGA reached a tentative agreement before the WGA. The WGA was offered New Media terms identical to those the DGA accepted, but went their own way. The terms in the WGA’s contract are significantly different than those in the DGA’s contract (the WGA struck its favored nations clause on internet residuals, its union-option-only re-opener clause on internet/sales residuals, its retroactivity clause on internet/sales residuals for movies and tv shows produced under prior contracts, and refused the sunset clause on New Media sideletter, to name a few) . The AMPTP offered both SAG and AFTRA terms based on those the WGA accepted. SAG and AFTRA opted to use the DGA’s terms as pattern.

  9. As you know, I support the idea of one union for actors, or “performers,” but I am more hesitant about the idea of journalists and actors being in the same union. Overall, the idea of larger amalgamated unions has some significant drawbacks and in my view tends to empower staff as opposed to the rank and file membership. In addition, here in this industry I think there is something distinctive about actors as opposed to newscasters, broadly speaking, that reinforces the need for an independent actors union.

    That is a separate question, of course, from the negotiations going on right now.

  10. You’re right, Steve. I only said “free-standing” in order to differentiate Players INC from the NFLPA.

    I contend that in the late ’40s/early ’50s SAG was defending its territory, not “superior conditions.” Not that it matters much anymore now. Both unions have become similar in so many ways – both adapting from the other – with many mutual agreements between them, I believe it is high time for there to be ONE UNION to represent performers in front of cameras and microphones.

    As for your statement: “A constructive credible argument made to the wider world would help the Guild immeasurably” – I have agreed with that idea of yours from the first time, years ago, that I heard you say it – and I certainly look forward to a studied and united movement in that direction in the near future.

  11. I do not believe that SAG should tell the world its strategy. I am a fan of what Ignaz Auer, a German trade union leader once said: Was man tut, sagt nichts.

    My point is that if there were a strategy to increase SAG leverage it would be felt publicly. But there has been a near vacuum in and around the guilds this go round as both the WGA and SAG have moved to what I call, for lack of a better word, “moderates.”

    Perhaps I am unaware of other less visible efforts to increase SAG impact on bargaining and if so we shall soon see the results.

    As for sour grapes, funny, when I criticize MF they accuse me of sour grapes (viciously) while UFS types praise me; but when I raise concerns about the limits of UFS strategic thinking they too attack me using the sour grapes line (somewhat less viciously). Maybe its you all who should get over the fact that I did not think SAG was really interested in my kind of independent leadership style.

  12. Steve, why would anyone announce or even hint at a negotiation strategy and hope to be successful?

    I hope I don’t hear a word about it until they have come to a deal. That’s how negotiations SHOULD be handled. Press blackout was the best idea for this event.

    I wish you didn’t sound so “sour grapes” when you talk about the leadership’s purposeful lack of reporting to the public about a plan of action. Because that’s what it sounds like to me. I mean, to go from a professional decision not to talk about strategy to there IS no strategy is a leap too far, my friend..

    You’ve been around long enough to know better.

  13. Thanks as always for your perspective, Tom.

    However, to call Players Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Football Players Union, “free standing” is to stretch the concept beyond recognition. It was conceived of and controlled by Union leader Gene Upshaw and Doug Allen and his wife, Pat.

    I respect and bow to your first hand experience with AFTRA, but you will certainly acknowledge that SAG did not hesitate to defend its jurisdiction then against the Television Authority in several cases brought to the NLRB. While some may view SAG then as an elitist job trust for film actors, others viewed it as defending superior conditions. It is not much different than tensions today between film actors and digital and independent productions.

    Is there a strategy in the current round of bargaining now underway? We will see. I gather it is indeed a secret. Let’s hope the Producers hear about it!

    Seriously, however, I think any effort to increase SAG leverage must include an effective public voice for actors, yet SAG has been very quiet. While I can understand the idea that the Guild would want to move away from the bellicose rhetoric of MF, the point about that rhetoric is that it was empty. A constructive credible argument made to the wider world would help the Guild immeasurably.

  14. Nice article, Steve,

    Three points, though.

    The Doug Allen scam against the players was at Players Inc, the free-standing commercial arm of the NFLPA which Doug and his wife ran.

    AFTRA’s historic origins as a union were formed to represent TV actors who were being ignored and looked down on by the film actor elitists & snobs who ran SAG from the confines of their studio protectorates in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I personally knew some of the players who “put the “T” in AFTRA.

    Strategy for the current TV/Theatrical negotiations indeed truly exists – it just hasn’t been bruited about for the well-poisoners to fiddle with. SAG has a very able team, now unencumbered by the Crazies for the first time in about ten years.

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